NORTHBROOK, Ill. -- Calling them the "Indiana Jones' of Infectious Diseases" may seem dramatic but it could be the most appropriate description for the more than 3,000 members of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH). Traveling to locations such as Malawi, The Congo, Honduras, Mali, Bangladesh and other developing countries, these physicians combat tropical and parasitic diseases around the world.
While Americans may not think diseases occurring in foreign lands affect them, diseases such as West Nile virus, tuberculosis and malaria are spreading around the world. For instance, malaria affects 300 million people worldwide; and approximately 2,000 people in the United States will be diagnosed with the disease this year, mostly as a result of traveling abroad. West Nile virus is rapidly spreading across the United States after first being introduced from overseas. Recent outbreaks of E. coli, Ebola and even anthrax have occurred, but were quickly treated or contained, thanks in part to the work of researchers who specialize in tropical medicine.
"We live in a global community, and infectious diseases do not respect international borders. One only has to reflect on the spread of AIDS and West Nile virus to understand that point," says Edward T. Ryan, MD, scientific program chair for the ASTMH and director of the Tropical & Geographic Medicine Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
"It is crucial that we address the healthcare issues of the developing world, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also for our own security," adds Ryan. And the scientists and physicians of the ASTMH have taken that message to heart, studying infections in every corner of the planet.
In Brazil, Richard Guerrant, MD, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Global Health, studies intestinal infections, a leading killer of children around the world and a greater cause of lasting developmental impairment. "We live in a century with rapidly increasing globalization of trade and travel, and therefore, our need to define and pursue globally shared values is of high importance," says Guerrant, former president of the ASTMH.
Guerrant adds: "Today, globalization has impacted not only big business, but also the health and well being of all people around the world, including our own food supply and economic welfare. Our growing interdependence on a shrinking planet is now reaching the point at which the health crises of the disadvantaged pose increasing threats to us all."
In Malawi, Terrie Taylor, MD, founder and director of The Blantyre Malaria Project, has been working for 15 years to find better treatments for malaria, and ultimately, to decrease the mortality rate of children affected with the disease. A small African republic, Malawi, has 12 million citizens who are among the poorest in the world and have a life expectancy of only 43 years because of infectious diseases such as malaria. In fact, every 40 seconds, a child dies of malaria somewhere in the world.
On a daily basis, Taylor sees children as young as 3 or 4 years of age with raging fevers and chills come through her clinic. Malaria is treatable, but if left untreated, the disease can advance and claim the lives of patients in just 24 hours. It is the hope that her research findings will help to treat and to comfort these young patients that drives Taylor back to Malawi year after year.
"These children are brought into the hospital on the brink of death, for all intents and purposes...unconscious, writhing, convulsing, and with harsh, barking abnormal cries," says Taylor, a professor in the department of internal medicine at the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Michigan State. "However, we are able to save 80 percent and when that occurs, it is a moment of great jubilation."
On the other side of Africa in Mali, Christopher Plowe, MD, MPH, chief of the malaria section of the University of Maryland's center for vaccine development, is preparing a site for testing vaccines against malaria.
"Malaria was responsible for more casualties than combat both in the Vietnam conflict and in the Pacific theater of World War II and as international travel increases we see more cases of malaria imported into the United States and more travelers who risk getting malaria," says Plowe.
"Right now, the only way we can protect our military and travelers to malarious areas is to put them on antimalarial drugs the whole time they are exposed," Plowe adds. "But we are seeing more and more drug resistance, and none of these drugs is without side effects. Vaccines against malaria offer the best hope for an intervention that could both protect U.S. military and travelers. It also could control malaria in developing countries where it continues to kill millions every year."
These and other advances in our understanding of malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS and other viral infections and parasitic infections will be covered in detail at the 51st Annual Meeting of the ASTMH on Nov. 10-14 in Denver, Colo. The meeting will include more than 700 symposia, lectures and scientific presentations, and more than 1500 researchers and physicians specializing in tropical medicine and parasitology will attend.